Monty Python, Elvis tuners set Chicago tryouts

CHICAGO — Some pundits grumbled over the rough local handling of “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Bounce.” And Mel Brooks has said he’ll take “Young Frankenstein” to Seattle rather than try to emulate his Chi success with “The Producers.”

But those attitudes are in the minority. Chicago is looking once again like the tryout town of choice for producers in 2004. There are so many new tuners on the 2004 Chi docket that it’s tough to keep them all straight.

There may be more ahead, too: This spring, Lawrence J. Wilker — former president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and a sometime Broadway producer and investor — is moving to town to own and operate the long-troubled Chicago Theater.

Wilker has yet to announce his plans for the theater — an atmospheric venue saddled with a small stage — beyond a spring production of the European, Cirque-style affair “Slava’s Snowshow,” which may then (finally) find its way to New York.

Wilker’s group, to be called Theater Dreams Chicago, likely will find Broadway in Chicago, a joint venture between Clear Channel and the Nederlander Organization, to be tough competition on the subscription front.

Still, Wilker has a big Rolodex and a solid rep. “We’ll be keeping the theater busy,” he said in a recent interview. “And you can be sure that we’ll be presenting in Chicago the shows that we are producing in New York.”

For now, however, the big pre-Broadway guns all are lining up with the Clear Channel-Nederlander combo.

On Dec. 21, “Spamalot,” Eric Idle’s crafty attempt to stage the cinematic spoofery of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” will debut at the Shubert Theater, under the baton of Mike Nichols and with the choreographic contributions of Kathleen Marshall. Most of the score is new — and Idle says the other Pythons will (to varying degrees) be involved.

In particular, Idle said, John Cleese likely will be coming to Chi to help out with the show.

With the pre-Broadway triumph of “The Producers” in mind, Idle says, “In Chicago we all know we can count on a large and enthusiastic audience.”

Down the street at the Cadillac Palace that same week, Joe DiPietro’s “All Shook Up” (once known as “Can’t Help Falling in Love”) will debut. The cheerfully middlebrow work of DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and “Over the River and Through the Woods”) hasn’t exactly wowed crix in the past, but he’s usually been slammed all the way to the bank.

With the Elvis song catalog sandwiched, “Mamma Mia!”-style, into a romance set in small-town America in 1955, this one comes with Christopher Ashley’s direction and a set from “Hairspray” designer David Rockwell — names designed to ratchet up the perception of quality. Both of DiPietro’s other shows are in long commercial Chi runs at present.

“Chicago has been good to me,” the writer says with a bit of understatement.

In all likelihood, whereas “Spamalot” will hot-foot it straight to Gotham, “All Shook Up” (which has the backing of Clear Channel) will indulge in a longer Chi run and a subsequent national tour. That worked for “Mamma Mia!” (which delayed its New York debut until it had worked up a big head of steam). And in this case, what worked for Abba is deemed good enough for Elvis.

Aside from Jackie Mason, who next month debuts his non-musical chatterer “Jackie Mason Fresh Squeezed” at the Auditorium Theater (which has more than 3,000 seats), the other big new project on the Chi slate is “Masada,” which looks like the longest shot for Broadway glory.

Composed by Shuki Levy, this new musical was inspired by the tale of Jewish zealots holding off the Romans from atop a mountain in 78 A.D. (Story inspired a TV miniseries starring Peter O’Toole back in the early 1980s.)

There was a concert performance in Los Angeles back in 1998, but the September Chi incarnation at the Shubert will be a whole new production and the true premiere, with Broadway on its mind. Still, in the minds of local auds at least, the show remains pretty much an unknown quantity.

Lou Raizin, the local head of Broadway in Chicago, says he has been pushing long and hard to get this uptick in pre-Broadway projects.

One of Raizin’s biggest assets is his large stable of venues — he now controls four legit houses in the Loop. His group owns the Shubert, Cadillac Palace and the Oriental Theaters, and it recently signed an exclusive deal with the Auditorium Theater to present at the gorgeously restored venue, which had been limping along as an independent under the control of Roosevelt University.

Yet another big Chi theater, the Arie Crown, also has raised its profile, hiring Dulcie Gilmore, a high-profile exec director with strong Broadway contacts and a long relationship with Cameron Mackintosh.

Four big theaters — not to mention the chance to rent the Arie Crown — gives Raizin a lot of seats to fill, but also the ability to stage long runs and still keep a subscription season up and running. It’s even possible that hit shows could transfer to Broadway while continuing to run in Chicago, obviating the lag time between a Broadway hit and its first manifestation on the road.

“We are interested in long runs,” Raizin confirms, noting both “Hairspray” and “The Lion King” recently managed Chi sit-downs grossing more than $1 million per week. “There is the audience here to support them.”

And Chi’s regional houses are more than happy to piggy-back on this kind of activity.

With artistic director Robert Falls firmly denying any interest in the job at the Public Theater, the Goodman also has a piece of the pre-Broadway action. Falls has snagged the pre-Broadway engagement of “Finishing the Picture,” the latest work by Arthur Miller; it deals with travails surrounding Marilyn Monroe and the filming of the 1961 movie “The Misfits.” It will be produced with enhancement monies from producer David Richenthal and directed by Falls.

The production, which opens Sept. 21, is the classy kicker to what’s shaping up to be a big Chi year.

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